Your Passport, please

Critics say .NET will allow Microsoft to collect personal data en masse, store it centrally, and use it to extract a toll as you roam or buy on the web. Windows XP is the first plank in this strategy.

The Internet is by its nature adaptive, chaotic and creative, a virtual territory that no one owns and with no central point of control. Could Microsoft change that?

The software giant’s competitors think so. Rivals are marshalling arguments to influence upcoming settlement talks with the US government and block Microsoft from becoming a de facto centralised power on the Internet.

The focus of the criticism is the way the Windows XP operating system (due October 25) will advance the software giant’s Internet strategy. The most potent threat within XP may be its exclusive implementation of the Passport authentication service, which identifies users as they travel the Web.

Bill: Passports for all

“It’s our goal to have virtually everybody who uses the Internet to have one of these Passport connections,” said Chairman Bill Gates in March. He may get his way. Not only is Passport the only Internet identity service in town right now, but after Windows XP launches, Passport could quickly gain unassailable critical mass.

Microsoft’s rivals fear that Passport could become the near-universal mechanism on the net whereby most users identify themselves to websites or internet services. Such services would then touch a Microsoft Passport server in the process of any transaction — and deliver a fee to Microsoft.

Microsoft has an openly stated goal of shifting its revenue base from software license fees to online service fees. Clay Shirky, VP of engineering at wireless technology company Roamable, has a poisoned view of that strategy: He sees Passport as a potential gateway to the Internet, a toll gate controlled by Microsoft. “It’s trying to transfer its monopoly on the desktop directly to the user,” Shirky says. “Passport is the lynchpin.”

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Passport has been around for years. The technology was acquired by Microsoft when it bought a company called Firefly in April 1998. It’s a single-sign-on identity authentication service for Microsoft websites and services and for any third-party websites and services that choose to support it. Every Hotmail user has to register for a Passport and it will be the exclusive identity service on the new Windows XP operating system. Any XP user who wishes to access key services such as Windows Messenger (for instant messaging) will have to register for a Passport.

Usage of Passport until now has been minimal. Although Microsoft bandies about a figure of 160 million registered Passport holders, the number may be largely meaningless. It includes every unique Hotmail account, which means the counting of many users multiple times. And for the most part these users are unaware of the fact that they have a Passport. Few important websites have supported Passport so it’s not very attractive to consumers.

But going forward, everyone with a Windows desktop will have a Passport. And those Passports will begin to be a requirement for full Web functionality. Microsoft’s .NET strategy will see the rollout, beginning next year, of a series of Microsoft web services called HailStorm, all of which will use and require Passport.

Carrot failed, try the stick

“They have tried the carrot approach with Passport for several years,” Shirky says. “Now they are trying the stick: We’re locking you out unless you register for a Passport.” If Passport were one among several alternative, interoperable identity authentication services, says Shirky, there’d be no problem. But it isn’t.

Microsoft dismisses as competitive propaganda the furor created by a technology that, from its point of view, simply grants access to its own services and is offered as a platform to other companies that choose to use it.

“Microsoft has created a new set of HailStorm services that require a user to identify themselves. In the case of those services, developed by us, we’ve chosen to use Passport,” says John Pope, a lead product manager for the HailStorm group. “Any user can choose not to use HailStorm services.”

But how much choice will users really have in the future? Pope concedes that Windows XP, currently in beta, supports only one identity service, Passport. Asked why Microsoft cannot allow for support of alternatives, he raises the issue that other technologies might not match up to Microsoft’s standards.

“One of the things that Passport provides is the high degree of confidence we can offer users on security and privacy,” Pope says.

Trusting Microsoft is indeed the crux of the issue. Is Microsoft, as it suggests, creating a service designed to work well for consumers? Or has Passport’s centralised architecture a narrow commercial purpose? Will consumers trust Gates with central control of many Internet services? Will the law allow it?

- Dominic Gates, The Industry Standard

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